J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 17, 2020

Ebenezer Richardson’s New Attorney

On 17 Apr 1770, 250 years ago today, the Massachusetts Superior Court convened to try Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot for murdering young Christopher Seider.

At least, the court tried to. The attorney whom the judges had ordered to represent Richardson, Samuel Fitch, didn’t appear. He was apparently home sick.

The judges therefore assigned the principal defendant a new lawyer: Josiah Quincy, Jr. (shown here in a posthumous portrait by Gilbert Stuart).

Already, back in late March, Quincy had agreed to help defend Capt. Thomas Preston and the eight soldiers charged with murder for the Boston Massacre. He explained his decision in a firmly worded letter to his father, which I quoted here.

That letter also said the top Boston Whigs supported young Quincy’s choice. They wanted the military men to receive what all of Britain would have to acknowledge was a fair trial. It’s not so clear that they felt the same about representing Richardson, but for Quincy the principle had been established.

Josiah Quincy would have to argue against his older brother, Massachusetts solicitor general Samuel Quincy, on the prosecution team with Robert Treat Paine. But the brothers didn’t have the most curious conflict in the case.

One of the judges overseeing the trial was Edmund Trowbridge, attorney general of Massachusetts from 1749 to 1767. Back in the early 1750s, he had also represented the Rev. Edward Jackson of Woburn in his defamation case against Roland and Josiah Cotton. Just when it looked like Jackson had lost his suit, another man admitted that he had fathered the illegitimate child that the Cotton brothers had blamed on Jackson.

That now-admitted real father was none other than Ebenezer Richardson. He had had to move out of Woburn into Boston. And he had to find a new form of employment—which involved serving Trowbridge as a confidential informant. In a document sent to London in the early 1760s, Trowbridge even cited Richardson for being “very serviceable to me in detecting a conspiracy to father a bastard child on the parson of a parish.” But in the small world of the colonial Massachusetts bar, that wasn’t enough of a conflict to take Trowbridge off the bench for this trial.

The judges rescheduled Richardson and Wilmot’s case for 20 April. In other words, Josiah Quincy had three days to prepare.

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